Anson Dorrance on 3Four3

The 3Four3 podcast with guest Anson Dorrance is a great listen!

I wish I would have heard when I was starting out in soccer.

Anson is good with words.

I wasn’t surprised, deep in the podcast when he explained he had an English major, thinks language is important and seeks to use language to inspire and motivate. It shows. He communicates simply and very effectively.

I thought Anson did the best job I’ve heard, so far, of explaining a few elusive soccer concepts.

Direct vs. Indirect Soccer plus Development vs. Winning

Being able to play both styles is important. But learning to play indirect takes time and patience.

This is him, paraphrased:

At U10/U12 and below wins come from direct soccer and putting a couple fast kids up front and a couple kids with big kicks at the back and sending the ball forward for the fast kids to run onto and finish.

This an example of winning that doesn’t develop.

Direct quote:

“Development is all about creating a philosophy of player development that doesn’t have as its priority the most effective way to win [for young ages] because the most effective way to win at a U12 level is what I described [direct soccer].”

Seven elements of athletic character

He has seen his share of talented players that lacked a few of these and it doesn’t go well. He looks for these traits:

  • self discipline
  • competitive fire
  • self belief
  • love of the ball
  • love of playing the game
  • love of watching the game
  • grit

The importance of 1v1’s

I thought it was a odd sign from the universe that I listened to this podcast on the same day I read about Belgium’s approach to youth soccer.

Dorrance coached the US WNT when the team members didn’t get much opportunity to train together. He encouraged them all to play the game in it’s simplest form — 1v1’s — on their own. Many of them were dating high-level men soccer players, and they played a lot of 1v1’s against them. He credits this as key to the success of his World Cup winning team.


Winning Does(n’t) Matter

This article about how the approach to coaching soccer in Belgium may have contributed to their success at this year’s World Cup is a good read.

I especially like the following two points:

Point #6: Winning Doesn’t Matter

We don’t have league tables until the Under-14 level. That was one of the big battles for us. Coaches shouldn’t be concerned about tables and trying to win trophies before this age – they should be thinking about developing players.

Coaches are inclined to focus on winning the game. That makes them play the big, strong players who give them the best chance of winning, so the late developers end up on the bench 75% of the time.

I agree. Team wins at young ages are poor predictors of future success and can be achieved in ways that do not make kids better at soccer.

While ‘4v4 to get more touches’ sounds good in theory, in reality the two fastest kids get  80% of the touches and the other 6 kids chase them.

While team wins don’t matter at young ages there, in Point #2 the author describes what type of winning does matter in Belgium and how it matters (bold added):

Kids want to play football in their own way, not the way adults want to play. If you put a child on an adult’s bicycle, they’ll say, “are you crazy?” But this is what happens in football, we ask them to play 11 v 11 or 8 v 8 at a very young age. They are not able to do it.

As a child, how did you start playing? In my case, it was with my brother, playing 1 v 1 at home, in the garden, in the garage, dribbling and scoring.

We created a format that is tailor made for this. We put one player in the goal and one on the pitch and at five, six years old, they play 1 v 1 with the goalkeeper and they adore it. They have a lot of touches, a lot of scoring opportunities. It’s all about that fun environment and fun means scoring goals.

They play two halves of three minutes, then they go to the next pitch. The winner goes to the left and the loser to the right. After one or two games they’ll be playing against a similar level of opponent and everyone scores goals, everyone wins games, which makes it fun.

They may be onto something.

1v1 skills — both attacking and defensive — are so important for team success.

1v1’s is a great way to simplify the game for young kids, while also building skills that will help later on.

Plus, winning still matters! But, it’s just used to sort the kids to face like competition.

I can imagine this has several benefits in addition to what he described above.

Players stand on their own results. Those results also provide clear and direct feedback for kids and parents.

For example, average players can’t mistake the successes of their advanced teammates as their own.

Parents can’t shift blame for poor results to teammates, nor can they complain that their child is playing in the wrong position, not getting enough play time or not getting enough chances to score.

This also makes it easier for kids to figure out what to work on at home. In a full team environment, there are so many things to work on, it can be overwhelming.

Does this answer the participation trophy debate?

I think this also sheds light on the mistake made by Participation Trophy advocates.

What they get right is that team records are not helpful at young ages.

What they get wrong is what to reward. They reward showing up. Showing up does not build fundamentals.

The approach used by Belgium above rewards building fundamentals.

Fitting this into my player development model.

Here I recommended kids gain competence in 5-a-side before graduating to 11v11.

The Belgium approach makes me think I missed a step.

Maybe the steps in the competitive ladder should be:

  1. Soccer starts at home. See Tom Byer.
  2. 1v1+GK competitions
  3. 5-a-side
  4. 11v11

Ages shouldn’t matter. Competency should be what progresses players through the steps. I see a lot of kids who get interested in soccer at 10 or 12, but have a hard time finding a spot on a team because they need too much work on the basics relative to kids who started younger. This progression would solve that.

If you’re new to soccer, whether your 6, 14 or 42, start with home practice, a lot of 1v1’s, then 5-a-side before moving on to 11v11.

Health insurance and sports

On Marginal Revolution, it is asked which system should be redesigned from scratch?

My first answer: health insurance.

Many problems in health care (like cost inflation) and employment stems from one simple design flaw: the tax benefit companies receive for buying health insurance that individuals do not receive when they purchase it on their own.

This has caused an unproductive melding of health insurance and employment that aliens would find strange, but we accept as normal.

We don’t expect companies to provide home and auto insurance and those markets are not nearly as mucked up.

My second answer is soccer in the U.S.

Somehow, unlike most of the rest of the world, we wedded sports and schools together from about high school on, including soccer.

I don’t have much problem with it for American sports that are not played widely around the world.

But, it has been detrimental to soccer development. If anyone wonders why the U.S. isn’t in the World Cup and, when we do qualify, we don’t make it far, I believe part answer is school sports.

Our youth soccer culture has emerged to prep players for college soccer rather than World Cup competition, which is a different game (the checkers/chess analogy applies), in several dimensions.

It also changes how the market for players and development of players works at crucial ages.

The U.S. is the Galapagos Islands of soccer.

To the inattentive, it looks like to the sport played elsewhere.

But, being cut off from the rest of the world in various ways has caused it to evolve along a slightly different path, which happens to not be optimized for producing the chess players that operate on the world stage.

Iceland is a good example of a country that went another way. Literally an island, it opened itself up to the soccer cultures of soccer-playing countries and from its tiny population has produced a World Cup team that played to a draw against Argentina last week, which is like Emporia State beating KU in basketball.

The answer is almost always, ‘not enough reps’

As a coach, I’ve noticed that too many coaches and parents vastly underestimate the amount of repetition required to gain competency in the sport’s core skills and tactics.

They seem to think that if a kid practices something a few times, they should be able to do it competently from then on.

I’ll admit, I was once in that camp.

But, I learned fairly quickly that when a player is flubbing a basic, the answer is almost always that they haven’t had enough quality reps, usually by several orders of magnitudes.

A lot of people knowledgeable about the sport miss this because they don’t remember all the reps they put in over the years.

The better kids on the fields are usually the ones who have accumulated the most reps.

Some have had the benefit of coaches that knew the right reps to work on and focused on those in a reasonable order.

Some have benefited from having family, friends, siblings or neighbors that helped provide quality reps — mainly through fun activities that they didn’t really think were reps — like simple games of catch with a baseball or OUT with a basketball.

You can tell a kid a million times to get their shoulders over the ball, instead of reaching in, for a tackle and they will still reach in. It’s sort of like telling a kid to do calculus instead of algebra. It doesn’t work, unless they have the right preparation.

The only way I’ve seen to correct reaching in is lots of repetition on basic foot skills like inside-insides, passing and dribbling, because all these train players to keep their feet and shoulders in a rectangle — the athletic position — and use their full body to control the ball, instead of just their feet.

Athleticism vs Skill in soccer

I’ve seen this, too.

There are no solutions, only trade-offs, even with being the best in soccer

I found this recent FB comment to Renegade soccer family from a father, Chad, seeking advice on how to motivate his talented son to practice more on his own:

I have an 11 yr old son who LOVES to play and was blessed with size and speed and fairly decent foot skills (not fantastic though)…

…long story short, Chad’s son says he wants to be the best. Chad tried to help him with private lessons, but his son lost motivation and doesn’t take the initiative to practice on his own, so Chad is considering other ways to motivate his son to practice, like paying him.

Most responses encouraged it, or other forms of external rewards like earning video games, video game time, tv time, etc.

I think it is a good example of a struggle many parents go through, including me.

My favorite response to Chad was from Cristi:

I have a different take on this. My son (U13) goes through phases when he is less motivated than others. I let him take a break. He needs to want it more than I want it for him. I will occasionally ask him if his goals have changed and what he has done today to reach them. If he performs poorly in a game, throw a little, “I am shocked you got beat on that play, isn’t the training working? Maybe you need to switch it up.” Works EVERY time. I do not reward him for practice. Hard work and the results of that work should be its own reward. I know it’s hard to see talented kids park themselves on the couch when we think they should be practicing. Trust, I am a control freak, it drives me NUTS!

We can all learn something from Cristi.

As a coach, I have news for Chad: the vast majority of kids well under perform their potential because they lack self-motivation, whether they are gifted athletes or not.

Chad, and most of the responders, falls into a trap that I have fallen into as well. I thought motivating players with external rewards would kick start them into practicing more. I challenged them with rewards like, ‘win a soccer ball if you get to 20 juggles.”

I figured if I got them over the initial hump and demonstrated what some self-practice can do, they’d get hooked.

It didn’t work out like I hoped. External rewards didn’t teach the kids to be self-motivated, it just taught them to seek the treats, like dogs doing tricks.

Cristi’s response has good wisdom.

“He needs to want it more than I want it for him.”

Parents and coaches often want success for their kids and players more than the kids want it.

“I do not reward him for practice. Hard work and the results of that work should be its own reward. I know it’s hard to see talented kids park themselves on the couch when we think they should be practicing.”

As adults, we hear kids say they want things and assume they know the trade-offs they need to make to get those things.

They don’t.

Chad’s son said he wants to be the best. Who doesn’t? Being the best is fun.

Chad thinks his son is saying he’s wants to put in the effort to make it happen. He’s not. He’s just saying being the best is fun.

I want a private jet. It’d be fun to to go anywhere on a moment’s notice. But, I don’t want to pay for it.

Cristi reminds us that it’s Chad’s job as a parent to help his son make the connection between what his son says he wants and the trade-offs to achieve it.

“You want to be the best? What improvement goals have you set this week, this month? What have you done today to work toward those goals?”

Chad might be disappointed when his son says,”Nah, maybe I don’t want it that bad.” But, at least he got the truth (his son really doesn’t want to be the best once he understands the trade-offs) and his son learned a lesson (there are trade-offs, and being the best means putting in effort to get there, not just wanting it).

Then Chad can lower his expectations and just enjoy watching his son play, learn and grow, rather than having his son practice at 6:30 in the morning with a personal trainer (yes, his post admitted to that).

Good advice for coaches and parents of soccer players from 3Four3 podcast

In this podcast, John Pranjic describes the importance of setting a culture for your team.

He describes an important first moment with the team (bold mine):

It’s the moment when you meet with your team for the first time. It’s your first opportunity to establish a proper team culture. It’s when you set the tone for the work that you will do together. And it’s a moment that becomes a reference point for you to come back to whenever necessary.

Having that reference point is great advice. But, what should you reference?

Quoting Brian Kleiban, a successful 3Four3 youth coach:

Brian introduced the players part of the deal. The two things that he says are non-negotiable. Two things that only they can control.

Players don’t control the quality of the field. They can’t control the actions of their teammates. They can’t control their opponents.

The only thing players have total control over are themselves. More specifically, players control their own level of focus and work ethic.

Just like the players cannot control the quality of the field – the coach cannot control the amount of effort a player puts into training. Only the player can.

This is an important reference point to set with parents, too.

Some parents work hard to find ‘great’ and motivating coaches, but fail to encourage their kids to put in the effort.

They think the coach will mold their child into a star, not realizing that how much effort the kid puts in is the biggest factor in that.

Coaches, like schoolteachers, can only do so much. The best teachers have had their share of C and D students. The best coaches have also had their share of flame-outs.

I also recommend setting the following reference points with parents:

  1. Questions about your child’s position and play time should sound like, “What does my child need to do to earn more play time/the chance to play a different position?”
  2. If you’d like to discuss subjects not related to your child — e.g. other players, what we work on at practice, team strategy — let’s first discuss how much effort your child puts in on and off the field.

For every conversation about a child’s effort, I’ve had 20 on other topics where more could have been accomplished discussing their child’s effort.

These reference points will help keep players, parents and coaches focused on the number one factor that will help the players — their own effort and work ethic.